Pfiesteria linked to fish in creek Researcher says water samples show microorganism

Commission appointed

Somerset County residents express concerns about health

September 16, 1997|By Marcia Myers and D. Quentin Wilber | Marcia Myers and D. Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A North Carolina researcher tentatively linked sick fish in a second Eastern Shore waterway to the Pfiesteria microorganism yesterday, while a Maryland medical team said it has examined 28 people -- 15 more than previously reported -- who may have been sickened by the microbe.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed 11 members to a commission to investigate the spreading problem.

And in Somerset County last night, 300 residents -- worried about their health and that of their waterways -- packed a high school auditorium hoping to learn more about Pfiesteria.

"I'm really concerned about the things that are happening," said Bobby Sparrow, 59, of Pocomoke City. "I'm here to get some real answers."

In her report to Maryland natural resources officials, North Carolina researcher JoAnn Burkholder said water samples taken last week from the Kings Creek tributary of the Manokin River in Somerset County indicate the presence of Pfiesteria piscicida.

The microorganism -- already blamed for killing thousands of fish and causing a string of human ailments in the Pocomoke River just to the south -- was suspected after lesions turned up on fish in Kings Creek last week.

"It's too early to identify any patterns yet, but we're certainly extremely concerned," Liz Kalinowski of the state Department of Natural Resources said in response to Burkholder's report.

State officials said yesterday that more tests were being conducted to confirm the presence of Pfiesteria in Kings Creek, a process that could take several weeks.

While this research continues, the state has closed parts of the Pocomoke, Kings Creek and the Chicamacomico River in Dorchester County.

Researchers also continued to take samples and inspect fish from the Chicamacomico, where thousands of dying fish were discovered over the weekend. Pfiesteria again is the chief suspect.

"Today [in the Chicamacomico] we saw several schools of fish that appeared to have lesions on them," said John Surrick of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Researchers also cast nets several times and noticed lesions on all the menhaden that were pulled in.

Tests on water samples taken from the Chicamacomico also are being studied in North Carolina, and results are expected later this week.

The microbe -- which takes numerous forms, several of them toxic -- is blamed for killing more than 1 billion fish in North Carolina in recent years.

Burkholder, an internationally recognized researcher at North Carolina State University, told Maryland officials that she had preliminarily identified a Pfiesteria-like microorganism in one of 10 water samples taken from a Kings Creek site, where thousands of sick menhaden were found last week.

She estimated the potential toxicity of the Kings Creek sample as moderate -- enough to harm fish.

"We suspected that a Pfiesteria-like organism might be working in a toxic form, and this information directly correlates to our action taken last Wednesday to close the creek," Glendening said in a news release. "Our priorities continue to be the health of BTC our citizens and the protection of the Chesapeake Bay."

As part of a broadening plan to deal with the problem, the governor appointed 11 people to a commission that will be chaired by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

The commission includes representatives from the General Assembly, local governments, and agricultural and environmental fields.

Members of the governor's commission include: Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a member of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee; Del. Ronald A. Guns, chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee; William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; and Clinton S. Bradley III, president of the Maryland Association of Counties and president of the Talbot County Council.

They also include: Bernie Fowler, former state senator and environmental advocate; Frederick W. Nelson Jr., president of the Somerset County Farm Bureau; Lloyd L. Simpkins, former secretary of state; Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health; Dolores Margaret Richard Spikes, president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; and John Toll, president of Washington College.

A Maryland medical team -- an ad hoc group created to study possible human health problems from Pfiesteria -- plans to issue a preliminary report tomorrow to the state health department.

After examining 28 people who developed ailments from possible exposure to Pfiesteria, medical researchers found the most consistent problems to be difficulties with memory and learning, said Dr. Glenn Morris, head of the medical team.

"But the questions at this point vastly outnumber the answers," he said. "We don't know how long the symptoms last. We're not sure if the critical exposure is through a respiratory route or through skin contact. We're not sure the same toxins causing fish to become sick are causing humans to be sick.

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